The Better Letter: Every Highway

What we hear isn't always what is.

The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was a masterpiece when it was released in June of 1967, heralding the Summer of Love. It was the first-ever concept album. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ned Rorem said “She’s Leaving Home” is “equal to any song Schubert ever wrote.” A different song is perhaps the greatest Beatles song of them all.

It “is the most important rock & roll album ever made” and still “guaranteed to raise a smile.” Its opening line begins, “It was twenty years ago today….” 

Twenty years later, Rolling Stone magazine named it the greatest album of all-time

Among its innovations was printing lyrics on the back of the album cover. Before lyrics were widely available without purchasing the sheet music (which used to be a thing), they were the subject of sometimes intense argument. 

Being able to check the lyrics meant that “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes” wasn’t really “The girl with colitis goes by.” 

What is going on when that sort of mishearing happens – and what it might mean – is the subject of this week’s music-soaked TBL.

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Every Highway

We were in a rental car, cruising down the freeway, on vacation, and singing along to a Gordon Lightfoot song from my high school graduation year.

When we got to the chorus, I looked down at the radio and saw the title of the song in print for the first time due to a radio feature we hadn’t had before. It said, “Carefree Highway.” I pointed it out to my lovely bride and we laughed long and hard. We had been belting out the wrong words for more than 40 years. To us, “Carefree Highway” was “Every Highway.” We wondered – not for the first time – “how the old folks are tonight.” But, perhaps for the first time, we thought we might be the old folks.

A “mondegreen” is a word or phrase you have heard that seems to make sense in your head but is wholly incorrect. Like “every highway.” Indeed, the term mondegreen is itself a mondegreen. American writer Sylvia Wright created it in 1954 based upon her experiences as a child. When her mother read to her from Percy's Reliques, she heard the lyric “layd him on the green” in the fourth line of the Scottish ballad, The Bonny Earl of Murray, as “Lady Mondegreen.”

Ye heilands and ye lowlands, | O whaur hae ye been? | They hae slain the Earl o' Murray, | And Lady Mondegreen.

In the same way, for some of us at least, Elton John’s “Hold me closer, tiny dancer” becomes “Hold me closer, Tony Danza.”

It’s a common occurrence. Bob Dylan didn’t think the Beatles were singing, “I can’t hide.” 

He thought they we singing, “I get high | I get high | I get hiiiiiiigh.”

Within mere fractions of seconds, we translate a wall of sound into sense via a two-part process. It begins when sound waves hit our eardrums and tiny hairs convert them into an electric signal that travels through the auditory nerve to the auditory cortex of the temporal lobe. Our brains — those three-pound lumps of neurons with a point of view — then turn that auditory perception into something meaningful, if not what the author intended. 

Because “disappointment haunted all my dreams,” some of us hear “Then I saw her face | Now I’m a believer” …

…as a much more cynical song: “Then I saw her face | Now I’m going to leave her.”

A mondegreen occurs most often when we cannot see the speaker’s (or singer’s) mouth, the words are in a different style or context (such as a song), and there are other things going on (like musical accompaniment). When what we hear seems ambiguous, our brains fill in the gaps of our understanding.

We usually get it right. But, like auto-correct and speech recognition software, not always. 

Jimi Hendrix sang “Excuse me while I kiss the sky” in Purple Haze

Lots of people heard “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” It’s almost as famous as its use of the dominant seventh sharp ninth, now known as the “Hendrix chord.”

Via the McGurk effect, people may hear one consonant when a similar one is being spoken or sung. This illusion occurs when the auditory component of one sound is paired with the visual component of another sound, leading to the perception of a third sound. 

Thus, we hear “There’s a bathroom on the right” instead of John Fogarty’s “There’s a bad moon on the rise.” 

We are meaning-makers at every level. We constantly try to make sense of the world by making assumptions and guesses to fill in the gaps of our understanding when reality escapes us. Steven Connor of Cambridge describes mondegreens as our “wrenchings of nonsense into sense.” As ever, information is cheap but meaning is expensive.

So, some of us hear “wrapped up like a douche” instead of “revved up like a deuce” in Manfred Mann’s rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s lyric. 

The most obvious application here is that our perceptions of the world can be deeply flawed despite our ongoing assumption that what we hear, see, and think corresponds entirely to what is. “We see through a glass, darkly,” as the Scripture says. All too often, we see things not as they really are but as we really are. That’s why the scientific method, the best mechanism available to determine what is, is so important.

I think that conclusion is entirely justified. I also think there’s more than that to the story … “further up and farther in.” Arguments rarely change minds. It is through experiences we repackage as stories that we revise our sense of what’s true. And it’s why the point during the Sanctus to Fauré’s Requiem when the horns and then the basses enter (about 16:45 below: “Hosanna in excelsis”) moves me to tears every single time.

As I have said before, since we are able to construct bridges that don’t collapse, planes that stay aloft, and computers we can carry around inside a pocket, there is very good reason to think there is an objective reality. Despite what some academic types may claim, the idea that math is subjective is more than a little bit nuts. That’s why science works, which is the best evidence for it, and why it is so important to our lives and society. It, and the power of human reason it relies upon, are altogether astonishing.

Still, it’s easy to overstate what science can do.

Science can determine, in often astonishing particularity, what is. It does so by ascertaining what isn’t true (via falsification, on account of the problem of induction) so that we may infer what is. It is utterly unequipped to speak to what Joseph Schumpeter called “extra-rational” ideas, such as that which ought to be. Ought questions require positive moral values – values that cannot be proven and must be argued for and over. 

We prefer a linear life and linear thinking, with clear progressions. That life isn’t like that has convinced many that existence is long, painful, and pointless. Science, and most particularly physics, compounds the problem by suggesting that our lives are deterministic because cause and effect are relentless. Truth about what matters most – love, morality, ethics – seems either elusive or nonexistent. Our understanding is full of gaps.

Those who truly believe in a pitiless, purposeless universe, following Camus, often choose suicide. That most of us choose to live and keep living suggests that meaning and purpose exist, either to be discovered or as necessary creations. Doing so is difficult, at best, and science isn’t much help.

In Jacobellis v. Ohio, the Supreme Court of the United States was faced with a challenge to an obscenity statute in Ohio. The Court held that the film at issue was not obscene and was thus constitutionally protected. Significantly, the Court could not agree on a rationale for the decision, producing four different opinions from the majority. No opinion, including the two dissenting ones, had the support of more than two justices. Justice Potter Stewart’s concurrence argued that only “hard-core pornography” did not deserve constitutional protection. Mr. Justice Stewart conceded that he couldn’t define what that was. However, and famously, he was clear on one thing: “But I know it when I see it.”

That’s not nearly as crazy as it sounds.

Our decisions about values – ought decisions: whispers of meaning, redemption, and regret – are not truly rational and not entirely intellectual. They are inherently practical and pragmatic. Does a work of art resonate? Does a belief system work for us? Does a song sing. We are meaning-makers through and through, filling in the gaps of our understanding as we go along.

We all test our working theories in real life. When we hit a roadblock, we circle back and come around again, spiraling further up and farther in, closer to figuring out what works. 

The proof is in the pudding, figuratively and literally. How does it look? How does it taste? We all can ponder life’s meaning – if we choose – and decide for ourselves what that is.

As with the title characters in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – who are bit players, at best, in the “real” play (Hamlet) – we are often so detached from any meaning in our own lives that we fail to recognize meaning and purpose when we meet them head-on. Are we mere characters in a play who cannot deviate from the script, because cause and effect are relentless? Or are we free to break out from our assigned roles?

Atheism is easier than faith intellectually in that it’s much easier to destroy a belief system than to create one. That’s why art and beauty provide such powerful apologetics.

As I have argued before, in one of my favorite editions of TBL, modern culture would have us believe that beauty is a pleasure technology, a social construct entirely in the eye of the beholder. Yet, I dare you to stand in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon and think its joyous greatness is a mere construct to attract a mate or improve our social standing. In the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

The opening chapter of the Bible proclaims: “God looked over everything he had made; it was so good, so very good!”

As a central character in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel observes, “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see.”

Music is a primary means for us to recognize the ends we all seek, at least in our better moments: meaning; purpose; Truth. It prods us further up and farther in.

Perhaps when Dobie Gray sang, “Give me the beat, boys, and free my soul” …

…what many of us hear – “Give me the Beach Boys and free my soul” – isn’t really a mistake. Maybe, just maybe, it’s a sign of soul in an erstwhile soulless universe, filling in the gaps in our understanding.

Totally Worth It

Mondegreens are important to a famous VW commercial.

This is the best thing I read this week. The most powerful. The most beautiful. The wildest. The most interesting. The wittiest. The cheekiest. RIP, Dick Hoyt.

I’ve been writing The Better Letter for a year now. If there is a story, issue, or subject you’d like me to write about, please contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright).

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Dolly Parton is a national treasure. Her duet with Zach Williams, “There Was Jesus,” won a Grammy this week (Dolly’s 11th).


This week’s wonderful benediction comes from Northern Ireland and is offered in honor of St. Patrick’s Day this past Wednesday.

May it be so.

Issue 55 (March 19, 2021)